MARANA, Ariz. — Phil Mickelson measured his response carefully, even putting his answer back on the reporter who asked whether recent changes on the PGA Tour had LIV Golf’s fingerprints all over them.
“You asked that as a question,” Mickelson said Wednesday at the Gallery Golf Club north of Tucson. “It should be more of a statement about the fingerprints.”
PGA Tour pros have not been shy about crediting the emergence of a rival league for forcing the tour to react when it came to making changes. Neither will many LIV players.
Mickelson, the most popular player on LIV despite a game that clearly has declined in recent years, has buttoned up since his controversial comments a year ago about the startup league being financed by Saudi Arabia caused a firestorm, forcing him to take a five-month break from competitive golf. He returned for LIV’s inaugural event in London.
This explains the carefully worded response to the tour’s announcement about $20 million no-cut, limited-field designated events.
“I’m happy to see it, I’m happy to see it for the [PGA] Tour,” Mickelson said. LIV’s second event of the 2023 season starts Friday.
“I think there will always be a need and a want for traditional golf. And there’s always an opportunity to innovate and to allow LIV to be additive and create something new and different. I also think the changes bring the best players about more often. I think that’s what fans want and what the sponsors want. They want to know what they are buying, and those are all things that LIV have provided for their sponsors and television and so forth.
“I think it’s a good model to follow, and I’m glad that they are.”
Mickelson was the first to say that the best way to pressure the Tour into making changes that benefit its membership was to provide an alternative league, or “leverage,” as he has said multiple times.
“I’m really happy with the way LIV has brought about new change to the game,” he said. “Because this team aspect is something that we really never saw as a possibility in golf until LIV came along. It brought about a new energy for me and a new dynamic.”
The 52-year-old may be having the time of his life on a tour where the slogan is “Golf But Louder,” one that spares no expense for players’ parties before each event, allows them to play in shorts and, most importantly, signed him up for a reported $200 million.
But that has not translated onto the course.
Mickelson was a combined 26-over in his first three LIV events and was 33rd or lower in five of LIV’s seven events last year. And we are talking about world-class fields.
The man known as “Lefty” was 27th in LIV’s season-opening event this year at Mayakoba in Mexico.
He hopes something changes this week playing in a region that holds some sentimental value for the three-time individual NCAA champion from Arizona State. Mickelson’s first professional victory came as an amateur at the Tucson Open in 1991.
“I have fond memories of coming back here,” he said. “To participate and bring live golf to Tucson is exciting for me and everybody else involved with LIV.”
As for the future of LIV, Mickelson believes it will continue to evolve as it has in Year 2 in which the circuit was rebranded as the LIV Golf League and increased its season from eight to 14 events.
“When we see something that can be better, we have the fluidity to make the change and make it better,” said Mickelson, who captains a HyFlyers team that includes Bernd Wiesberger, Matthew Wolff and Cameron Tringale.
“There’s a lot of specifics that we could look at and say, ‘gosh, do we need to go to 72 holes to get World (Golf) Ranking points’? Or ‘what do we need to do to be the best product’?”
Then, he just could not help himself. The man who called the PGA Tour a “dictatorship” and said its “greed” is “beyond obnoxious” had to get in one zinger.
“And also, this is a question that LIV has been asking that I haven’t been asked in the last 32 years: ‘How can we make this the best experience for the professionals, as well’?” said Mickelson, who earned more than $94 million in his career on the PGA Tour.
“And that’s what’s exciting for us as players to be a part of this league.”
That, and a lot of Saudi money.